Jockeys whipped into a frenzy

It’s the last profit hit that executives at Australia’s two major wagering companies, Tabcorp and UNiTAB, would have seen coming.

In the last few years, thoroughbred racing meetings have been abandoned for all sorts of reasons – rain, weather, drought, a bitter broadcasting dispute and, most famously and most damaging, the equine influenza.

But race meetings abandoned across the country after a wildcat jockey strike, and all over a piece of padded leather on a stick? You’d want odds of 1,000 to 1.

But that is exactly what happened yesterday after thoroughbred racing’s ruling body, the Australian Racing Board rejected a demand from jockeys that the sports controversial new whip rules be changed.

Much to the relief of Tabcorp, UNiTAB and bookmakers around the country, race meetings – including big spring carnival lead-up meetings in Melbourne and Sydney – will go ahead this weekend, but the jockeys are threatening an indefinite strike next week if they don’t get what they want.

Under pressure from animal rights groups, the ARB introduced new rules on August 1, making it mandatory for jockeys to use a padded whip and placing restrictions on the amount of times a jockey can whip a horse in the final 200 metres of the race.

Under the rules, jockeys may use the whip in a forehand motion five times before the 200 metre mark, then on three consecutive strides after the 200 metre mark. But after that the whip can only be used on every second stride between the 200 and the finish.

Sound confusing? Try computing all that when you are on top of a 500 kilogram horse travelling at speeds of up to 60 kilometres an hour. Yet breaches of the rules have already resulted in jockeys being fined and suspended, with champion jockeys including Damien Oliver and Corey Brown among those penalised.

The jockey’s dismay and confusion is shared by owners, breeders and trainers, who naturally don’t like the idea that their horse could be beaten if their jockey abides by the rule and another jockey doesn’t. After all, there are millions of dollars on the line and a nostril can make all the difference.

So yesterday, Oliver and Brown fronted the ARB asking for a tweak to the rules – within the last 100 metres of a race, jockeys should be allowed to whip their horse as many times as they like.

The ARB held its ground and the jockeys, backed by the Australia Jockey’s Association, retaliated by going on strike around the country. The riders have agreed to race on the weekend, but have given the ARB an ultimatum – fix the situation by Monday or we’re striking indefinitely.

You might think the whole thing sounds like a bit of a joke – and while I am a punter, I can appreciate non-racing people must be pretty bemused.

But for the wagering companies, this is no laughing matter. For Tabcorp and Tattersall’s, every single interruption to the racing program means a drop in revenue.

Figures produced by Tabcorp during the equine influenza outbreak in late 2007 show that total wagering turnover in a typical late September week in 2006 was running at $165 million. If we assume the figures have increased by about 10% since then, then weekly wagering turnover is probably around $180 million.

Given about 62% of all money wagered on racing is bet on thoroughbred racing, then it’s reasonable to assume that if a week of horse racing was lost, Tabcorp’s wagering turnover would fall by up to $110 million. Given Tabcorp’s pre-tax profit margin on wagering is around 2.5%, that could mean a hit of over $2.5 million to Tabcorp’s bottom line. And that’s just Tabcorp – UNiTAB, Betfair and the small army of bookies around Australia will lose out too.

It’s difficult to see where the dispute will go from here. The ARB has promised to review the rule in February, but has ruled out immediate changes. For their part, the jockeys are talking tough.

However, the riders may find their support base is being quickly eroded. While the owners, trainers and breeders are clearly unimpressed with the whip rule as it stands, they are likely to be even more upset at the prospect that the rich spring races on which the industry is based may not go ahead.

Already prominent owner Lloyd Williams – who has several horses aimed at the Melbourne Cup and Cox Plate – has signalled his displeasure, saying that while he agrees with the jockeys’ position he does not agree with their strike action.

“They are in a private enterprise sector and withdrawing their services is not something I agree with,” he said yesterday.

“I think it’s pretty simple. I think we put apprentices on our horses and we think carefully about these jockeys in the future.”

That’s a pretty idle threat – few owners of Melbourne Cup starters will want to put a young, inexperienced apprentice on their horse just to prove a point to a champion jockey who took part in the strike.

But for the moment, it’s not quite clear who holds the whip hand in this fight.

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